April 5, 2020

Earthquakes Around Prescott

Some might be surprised at the frequency of earthquakes in the “Quad-City” area,* while those who were aware might be surprised at some of the odd ways they manifest here.

Meticulous records have only been kept since around 1931, but beginning with that year, the earth has trembled 15 times within a 30 mile radius of Prescott; an average of 1 every 6 years. Of course earthquakes do not run on an assembly line and, on the geologic timeline, Prescott’s existence is microscopic.

In researching newspaper accounts, the first recorded earthquake in Prescott occurred March 11, 1870 at about 10:20 AM “and although it neither scared people nor shook down houses,” the paper said, “it made things dance around in several buildings.” Interestingly, the quake was worst felt in two buildings: Campbell and Buffum’s brick store, and the Miner office. At C & B’s it was reported that “the tinware was made to rattle; the walls shook and the joists were seen to sway.” Generally, wooden buildings “got a severe shaking.” As further reports filed in, it was learned that the “earthquake shook men and things in every settlement around Prescott.”

Less than a year later, February 7, 1871, none other than the infamous Charles Stanton, for whom the town was named, reported an earthquake that seemed to originate from the “Weaver or Antelope range of mountains.” Stanton transcribed a precise and even flowery description of every condition at the time; even reporting: “At the time the atmosphere was dense and serene, with a few translucent, lamellar clouds over the range.” Stanton himself was standing on the plain at the time and felt only a slight shaking, but the sound was described as a “tremendous cannonading—the fire apparently commencing at the south, and ranging northerly…concluding with a heavy monotonous noise.” The vibrations were felt by only a few in Prescott. It began at 3:08 PM and ended two minutes later.

Levi Bashford, for one, took note of these seismic activities and in 1875 instructed the company constructing the foundation for his new building to build it “to stand even the giant tread of an earthquake,” the paper reported.

One earthquake was remarkably localized. On August 13, 1885 an earthquake was described as being “vividly felt at Ft. Whipple, (but it) failed to reach Prescott.” How such a thing could happen is difficult to determine. Perhaps an underground cave collapse too deep to pierce the surface might be the culprit.

In September, 1891, the newspaper was shocked to hear a report from a fruit farmer on Lynx Creek about an earthquake that left “a crevice 3 feet deep and 2 feet wide for a distance of over 2 miles.” The paper’s editor, lacking 21st century search engines, wrote: “But as earthquakes here-to-for have never been attributed to this land of gold, much speculation and interest has been manifested as to the cause of this subterranean outburst.”

The story of a mysterious powder house blast at the United Verde Mine in Jerome, AZ on December 20th, 1925 and its consequences.

Perhaps some people are more sensitive to feeling earthquakes or perhaps they are seismic hypochondriacs. EE Breen was reported to have felt two earthquakes in Prescott when most did not. On August 6, 1902, the paper reported that Breen felt an earthquake in the city between 1 and 2 in the morning. Then, while visiting the city in June of 1907, he reported that he felt two tremors, about 90 seconds apart around 5 AM. When asked why he was the only one known to have felt it, he thought it was “due to the fact that at this early hour the greater portion of the city’s population (was) wrapped in slumber.” In Breen’s defense, modern technology confirms that many of Yavapai County’s tremors can be very slight.

In between the two Breen incidents, in late January, 1906, Northern Arizona experienced what the paper described as “a genuine earthquake, and although the shaking was not of an alarming nature in (Prescott,) it proved severe at Flagstaff and Williams.” In Flagstaff chimneys fell down as “the pupils in the public school fled in terror from the building. They were so frightened that it was impossible to resume school that day.”

Indeed, there were reports ranging from Seligman to Gallup, NM. The quake was definitely felt in Prescott as well. Seven people who were in downtown buildings at the time gave their accounts to the paper. Windows rattled; chandeliers rocked; and furniture rolled. One man who previously lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles and experienced earthquakes there claimed that he “never experienced one of such duration as this one.” The paper also noted that the worst of the shaking occurred in the part of town east of Cortez St.

September 28, 1910, the three center columns of the paper’s front page were devoted to report an earthquake that was widely spread across western Yavapai County, even greatly shaking Jerome. Fortunately there was no loss of life and no buildings collapsed. Still, plaster walls and ceilings cracked and fell to the floor in many locations.

"The buildings in Skull Valley shook, alarming many of the occupants,” the paper related. “The railroad depot rolled as if falling from its foundation. Women residents were particularly alarmed, many calling to their husbands. Many who were in the Depot reported that the building rumbled and rattled as if it was hit by a locomotive running at high speed, and several rushed to the outside to inquire into the cause of the strange disturbance.” 

In Prescott, “by far the most violent shaking…occurred at the SF P & P (railroad) storehouse, near the railroad Depot. The building (was) reported to have been badly shaken, jarring supplies from the walls,” the paper reported. “Peculiar as it may seem, no shock was felt in the Depot, only a short distance away. This, it is believed, is due to the fact that the Depot is of reinforced concrete construction, the walls being strong enough to support the heaviest engine on the Santa Fe lines. Not even the slightest tremble was felt in the train dispatcher's office, on the second story.” Interestingly, none of the residents living close to Thumb Butte felt anything either. Aftershocks from this occurrence continued in the Flagstaff area for over a week. 

Earthquakes large enough to be reported took a vacation until a series of quakes occurred near Williamson and Williamson Valley in the early part of 1976. On February 4th, a 4.9 magnitude tremor was centered east of Williamson Valley Road where West Twin Oaks Dr. dead-ends. The following day a 2.9 magnitude strike was recorded 5 miles west of southern Chino Valley. Four days later, there was a 4.6 magnitude quake just east of Granite Basin lake near Granite Mountain.

Yet the earth was not through settling. Three months later, on May 4, a 2.5 magnitude quake was centered near Williamson Valley Road just north of the Outer Loop Road intersection. Finally, on October 21, the following year, a 2.5 magnitude tremor occurred north of the Pioneer Parkway, just west of the Commerce Drive intersection. 

The last quake to occur in the Quad Cities happened November 13, 1991 near Prescott Valley just north of where Glassford Hill Rd. empties onto Highway 89A. It measured 3.5 on the Richter Scale. 

Although the Verde Valley has been active since then, it’s been 29 years since the Quad Cities experienced a movement of the earth; perhaps we are overdue.

Fault line map of the Quad-city area

UPDATE: We got our "overdue" earthquake July 23, 2023:

*As Melissa Ruffner rightly points out about the Quad Cities: Prescott is the only city, the other 3 are towns.


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Weekly Arizona Miner, 3/12/1870; Pg. 3, Col. 2.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 3/19/1870; Pg. 3, Col. 3.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 2/18/1871; Pg. 4, Col. 1.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 7/2/1875; Pg. 3, Col. 2.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 8/14/1885; Pg. 3, Col. 1.
WeeklyJournal-Miner, 9/16/1891; Pg. 3, Col. 6.
WeeklyJournal-Miner, 8/6/1902; Pg. 3, Col. 3.
WeeklyJournal-Miner, 6/26/1907; Pg. 6, Col. 4.
WeeklyJournal-Miner, 1/31/1906; Pg. 3, Col. 1.
WeeklyJournal-Miner, 9/28/1910; Pg. 1, Col. 2-5.
WeeklyJournal-Miner, 10/5/1910; Pg. 8, Col. 1.

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